The Gatekeeper to Stanford’s Business School

All interviews at Stanford are by invitation only and are done by alumni, right?

Yes. About 80 to 90% are done by alumni and the rest by staff. If you designed the ideal admissions process, you would have one person read every file and do every interview. If applicants applied in October and let us give them decisions in May, we could do that. With the shorter timetables that we have today, that’s not possible. With the interviews, we have a relatively small group of alumni who do more and more and the same is true of our staff.

There is this perception that the interview is not as important at Stanford as it is at Harvard. Is that true?

I have a lot of things I can spend my time on. I’m not going to waste time on something that doesn’t make a difference to the process. That’s just silly. Everything makes a difference here. If it didn’t make a difference, we wouldn’t do it. We didn’t interview for years and decades because we just didn’t feel it was important. When (Dean) Bob Joss came in 1999, he really felt we were missing something in evaluation because of it. I tend to agree so we started interviewing.

I am the only one who reads all the interview feedback. I wouldn’t add time to a really busy period of the year if interviews didn’t mean anything. Why do people think the interviews don’t matter?  Some people just don’t interview as well as they think they do. And then you see the other side.  You would be floored at how many calls we get from people who say, ‘My interview went so poorly. Can I have a second interview?’ And I am sitting here looking at the feedback and it is glowing. So that person then thinks the interviewer turned in a terrible report and they got in despite that. No, they turned in a terrific report and you just don’t have an idea. There are so many people who speculate on the process who have no idea what’s actually happening.

Do you often override a bad interview?

Not often. It’s much easier for an interview to keep you out than to get you in. Again if one of our alumni says, ‘This person is not a good fit for the Stanford community. This person is arrogant. This person won’t engage well with the community. This person doesn’t share our values.’ Why would I dispute that? I may follow up with the person and say, ‘Help me understand what was the evidence of that? What led to that point of view?’ But it’s pretty rare for us to do that.

We interview about 1,000 applicants year, plus or minus 100. We accept 450 to 500 people in a typical year. So your odds are about 50-50. If I could actually force myself to make these difficult decisions earlier on, I would interview more like 800. It’s just really hard to make that cut. Then again, I think most people appreciate having the chance to tell their story. One more piece of data helps us make that final decision.

Do you get to do interviews?

I do a handful of them. I’m usually pretty busy.

So you mean just five a year.

Yeah, that’s right.

How do you decide who to interview?

I’m in the cycle like anybody else. Most people are finished reading earlier than me because I read more in the pool than anybody else. So people who are finished reading can do interviews. I’m not finished reading. That’s the issue.

You do all the final decisions?

They all eventually come to me, not because I’m better at selection. It’s because I have a broader context on the pool. I just think again especially with a small class, I think it helps that one person has a full overview of the entire class.

Do you know how many you reverse in any given year?

We track that. It would be a number.

And the number is?

There is a lot of information that applicants want that has no value to them in the process. I think that the more they focus on how we make the sausage, the more of a disservice they do to themselves. I think it’s beyond their control. There are things they can control and there are things they can’t. They have scarce time and scarce resources. If they are focusing all of those on what is happening here, what is the black box, what is the secret sauce, I think all that time comes at the expense of sitting down with the recommender and talking about what their dreams actually are. Or sitting down and thinking about what they want to do.

I understand how obsessive people can be in trying to get into a Stanford or any top MBA program.

You won’t believe it. Robin Mamlet, who was dean of undergraduate admissions, told me a great story one time about how she was talking to a group of parents and said something like, ‘Stanford is looking for the kid who stays up all night reading a book because he can’t put the book down.’ And the next year, there were all these essays from kids who stayed up all night reading books. That kind of thing happens all the time and I really worry about it. Maybe I take this too seriously but there is so much potential for everything I say to be taken out of context by the people who read it and these poor kids are so stressed out. You simply can’t imagine how much pressure they have on them.

They have a full-time job, which most of them are excelling at and which makes an incredible demand on their time. They are trying to maintain some form of family or community involvement. And then we add this process on top of that, which adds hours and hours. And if we believe estimates, they are spending additional time with consultants going through the process. If I believed that (that half of Stanford’s applicants are using admissions consultants), I would just start charging $2,000 per application fee and give them consulting services myself. Why would I let all that margin slip away? If I had $2,000 per application, we could staff up and provide lots of detailed guidance throughout the process.

How do you feel about admissions consulting?

Well, it’s there. Look, there’s a market and there’s demand and people with money so there are going to be jobs. There are a lot of people who are alumni of Stanford and other schools who do it. An a Stanford alum, I certainly think I gave out my share of bad advice when I was working at Goldman from what I know now. You think if you’re the one you got in, ‘Oh well, I wrote my essays about this and that worked for me.’ Or, ‘I was really detailed when I spoke about this and you should do the same.’ My mom was an English teacher so writing is important to me.

So you probably did a good job on your essays when you applied to Stanford?

I think so. It took me a full year to write my essays.

Did your mom review them?

No. No one reviewed them. They were very personal. If I had left them on the printer at the office at 2 a.m., I would have driven back from wherever I was to get them.

Now consultant Sandy Kreisberg has said that an applicant has to either be a victim or have helped victims if you’re writing an essay for Stanford. What were you?

I don’t think I was a victim. I went to private school my whole life. I went to private college. I worked at McKinsey. I didn’t write anything related to victimhood. I was a career switcher when I came to Stanford and apparently very risk averse.

Really?

Well, consulting and banking are pretty traditional MBA paths. In 1998, it wasn’t as if there was a lot of demand to get into Goldman Sachs. All my classmates were doing other things.

What percentage of the class you just entered are career switches?

Certainly the majority. In a typical class, it’s probably 70 to 80%. The only people who stay are consultants or those from private equity. Almost everyone else is switching.

I’ve had people tell me that if you want to use the MBA to switch careers, you should never admit it to admissions because it may suggest you’re less than focused in what you want to do.

Oh no. They are too worried about what the admissions office is thinking. They are not worried about actually answering the questions or thinking about the process for what it brings them. I always tell people if you prepare your entire business school application with the mindset that you will never turn it into the school that is going to be your strongest application. Because you are going to write essays that are really helpful to you. It’s the kind of thing you would want to post on your dorm room door. So every day when you walk out to class it reminds you why you are here. What do you want to take away from this experience? What is the dream that motivated you to walk away from a really terrific opportunity? The goal of the business school application process is to do some structured thinking about who you are and what your dreams are. The byproduct of that is the application they turn in to us. The more applicants start to worry about what the schools think, the worse off they are.

A few years back you put word limits on the essays. How come?

That’s this generation. They don’t respond well to ambiguity. We’re pretty comfortable without word limits. We give them 1800 words total and they can allocate that anyway they want. Until then, applicants had no idea what we really wanted. On the road, they would say, ‘No seriously, what do you want?’ 1800 words is about right.

Do you have a point of view on what people should write?

I have a point of view on what they shouldn’t write. They shouldn’t write things that they think we want to hear. They shouldn’t write things that are untrue, or things that are overly packaged.

Are the essays more polished today than they were nine years ago?

Dramatically. I think that’s to the detriment of the applicant and the admission process.

Don’t you think that’s a function of admissions consulting?

I think it’s a function of people putting a lot more time into them. I think it’s a function of a lot more transparency. You can Google Stanford essays on the web and find 20 examples of them. But again, it doesn’t mean it’s good information. These are not essays that are vetted by us and then put out there as terrific essays for Stanford.

I remember the first time I saw one of these online. Someone had paid students to get their essays and then published them. And I said to myself, ‘Please tell me that none of our students did this,’ and as a matter of fact the one I saw was from a student we admitted who actually didn’t come to Stanford.

The famous so-called ‘tortilla essay,’ right? (The writer started the essay this way: “A famous saying at Disney goes, “…it all started with a mouse.” For me, the equivalent should read, “It all started with a tortilla.” A tortilla? Without over-dramatizing it, I believe a simple corn tortilla was the catalyst for a significant life change that would lead me to discover what matters most to me: challenging myself to open up, learn, and grow by building diverse relationships.”)

 

Yes. We admitted that person despite that essay. She felt that it was the Stanford essay that got her in and that was not at all the case. So then it was really clear because that year you could see people following that template. It was really sad. That’s why there are consultants. That’s why there is a market for anything somebody peddles to help get people into business school. It’s like Jim Jones and the Guyana tragedy. People will follow people if they think there is something that could help them.

The admissions consultants believe you have the hardest line on them. Is that true?

That’s probably true. I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to make a living and a lot of them can be helpful to prospects. It’s just something that is inconsistent with our application. Our students will be making judgment calls their entire lives. We ask them to sign a statement that the application is their work. I certainly think it parallels the honor code that we follow with students. We don’t proctor their exams but we ask them to adhere to these standards. I hope that they do. There is some percentage of them that I know don’t. But even in undergrad at Stanford only about 15% of students are using consultants. We track that percentage here and it is not dramatically different from that.

You think it’s less than 15%?

I don’t think it’s less than 15, but it is less than 50%. We’ve had people self report this without identification so there is no need to lie. I think Poets and Quants-cited estimates are way off. For the poor kid sitting in Iowa who doesn’t know anybody in business school, that’s the kid who thinks he should hire a consultant but probably doesn’t have the money to do it. The applicant who hires one is somebody who already has access and resources. So in general I don’t think it helps the process.

If your assertion is correct and Stanford has 3500 applicants using consultants, I think schools would dramatically change what they do. We’d have to have a Chinese wall. You would have to step out of (admissions) evaluation for a year and provide consulting. It’s something you could do across schools and do a pool that works with five or ten schools. And you have officers rotate out of admissions and do that consulting for a year and you give those advisors as much guidance as you can.

Are there favorite feeder firms at Stanford?

I wouldn’t say favorite but private equity and finance broadly would be number one. Private equity is 24% of the class. Consulting is 20% of the class.

What about actual firms within those industries? You’re probably heavily reliant on Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey, Bain, BCG.

Actually 260 to 270 companies are represented in the class of 390 students. It’s a pretty broad mix. There are very few companies that send us more than a handful of students. You can expect folks who send a lot of applicants to result in a lot of students. All the places you just cited are going to be well represented in the class– Goldman not as much. They really stopped that spigot going direct from Goldman to business schools. You can’t recruit at Goldman, anymore. They’ve really become sticklers about that.

How come?

They want their undergrads to stay. Their view is that they are getting higher quality students out of undergrad than they can get out of business school. So they would rather keep their talented undergrads. So you don’t see as many coming from Goldman as you used to. That’s in the last two years. They are making a much more concerted effort to keep their talent in the firm.

What about NGOs as feeder organizations?

Well, do you count the World Bank as an NGO? There is the Clinton Global Initiative, where you have significant numbers, and then of course, Teach for America and all the international variants of that, Teach First, Teach for India. They are amazing sources of motivated and talented students. TFA has gone gangbusters in the last decade. Wendy Kopp is amazing. That place, my gosh, if you could build two or three other non-profits like that in other sectors, what a better world we would have.

How does she get consistently good people?

They are incredibly aggressive at recruiting on campus. If I could copy that model, I’d love it. They basically hire students who are on campus just to talk about TFA all the time. They put up flyers everywhere and send people to campus all the time.

Derrick, many people who apply to Stanford also apply to Harvard. How often do you win when Harvard also accepts the same applicant?

We don’t say. For students, it’s a personal decision, and I’m not a big believer in yield (the percentage of applicants who enroll after being admitted). I can give you a class that has a yield of 100% by just accepting applicants of lower quality. We’d have a strong uptake of offers.

One final question. How much leeway do you have in shaping the Stanford class, or is it really your job to follow the directive of the dean?

Every decision I make, I’m trying to think what would (Dean) Garth do? Admission is a faculty purview that they have delegated to me. Garth reviews (applicant) files in every round. He’ll go deep on about two dozen files a year, but I’ll review as many as 200 with him. Garth is incredibly different from Bob (Bob Joss was the previous dean who Saloner succeeded in 2009). Garth tilts more toward intellect, and Bob tilted more toward potential leadership.

Derrick Bolton’s Five-Year Record As Admissions Dean at Stanford

(Year cited is for the graduating class two years after matriculation.)

Year Applications Median GMAT GMAT Range
2012 7,204 730 580 – 790
2011 7,536 730 540 – 800
2010 6,575 730 530 – 790
2009 5,741 730 570 – 790
2008 4,868 720 530 – 800